Conflict

Turkish and US troops begin joint patrols in Syria's Manbij

Syria

Patrols to avert clashes between Turkey and US Kurdish allies underway even as Ankara plans offensive against Kurds on other side of Euphrates.

Turkish and US soldiers have begun joint patrols around the city of Manbij in northern Syria aimed at averting clashes between Turkey and Washington’s Kurdish allies, even as Ankara presses on with a new threatened offensive nearby to crush the Kurds.

Turkey’s defence minister and the US-led military coalition in Syria confirmed the start of the patrols in Manbij, about 30km from the Turkish border, on Thursday.

Previously, US and Turkish forces have held coordinated but separate patrols there.

A Reuters journalist saw a convoy of six military vehicles, some flying the US flag and others flying the Turkish flag, driving about 20km from Manbij.

Turkish military advances into northern Syria over the past two years have put US forces backing Kurdish YPG fighters directly in the path of advancing troops from Turkey.

The YPG forms the main part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that Washington backs with arms, air support and around 2,000 special forces troops on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State group (IS).

To avert more fighting, the US and Turkey agreed three months ago to hold joint patrols around Manbij on the west bank of the Euphrates River, under a deal that also saw Kurdish fighters withdraw from the city.

The joint patrols are taking place along the dividing line between territory controlled by the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council and a Turkish-controlled area in northern Syria.

However, even as the joint patrols were due to begin this week, Turkey announced a new offensive against the Kurds on the opposite bank of the river, into territory where the SDF has US troop support.

US urges restraint

Turkish forces have been firing across the border for five days in preparation for what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says will soon be an offensive, the first by Turkey across the Euphrates, to crush the Kurdish forces along the breadth of the Turkish frontier.

Earlier this week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, and SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said Turkish forces shelled and fired on an area near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad on the Turkish border.

On Wednesday, the SDF said the Turkish attacks had forced it to suspend its US-backed campaign against IS near the Iraqi border.

On Thursday, the US-led coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told Reuters in emailed comments that the suspension was still in place while talks continue.

US Central Command, which is in charge of US military forces in the region, issued a statement late on Thursday urging “all parties to show restraint to de-escalate the current situation and ensure maximum pressure continues” against IS.

In the multi-sided conflict, IS fighters have been driven from nearly all of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” they controlled in Syria and Iraq by a range of foes including the US-led coalition, the Iraqi government, the Russian-backed Syrian government and Iran-backed paramilitaries.

Turkish forces have been firing across the border for five days in preparation for what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says will soon be an offensive, the first by Turkey across the Euphrates, to crush the Kurdish forces along the breadth of the Turkish frontier.

Earlier this week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, and SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel said Turkish forces shelled and fired on an area near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad on the Turkish border.

On Wednesday, the SDF said the Turkish attacks had forced it to suspend its US-backed campaign against IS near the Iraqi border.

On Thursday, the US-led coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan told Reuters in emailed comments that the suspension was still in place while talks continue.

US Central Command, which is in charge of US military forces in the region, issued a statement late on Thursday urging “all parties to show restraint to de-escalate the current situation and ensure maximum pressure continues” against IS.

In the multi-sided conflict, IS fighters have been driven from nearly all of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” they controlled in Syria and Iraq by a range of foes including the US-led coalition, the Iraqi government, the Russian-backed Syrian government and Iran-backed paramilitaries.

However, last week IS fighters launched one of their deadliest attacks this year against the SDF.

The SDF says it lost 14 fighters, while the Observatory says the death toll was much higher.

Over the past two years, Turkish forces have already swept into Syria to push YPG fighters out of territory west of the Euphrates in two separate military campaigns.

Past offensives halted at the banks of the river, in part to avoid direct confrontation with the US.

US relations with Turkey, one of its closest allies in the Middle East for decades, have been strained almost to breaking point in recent months by differences over Syria, Iran and Ankara’s planned purchase of Russian military equipment.

Prospects of improving ties rose last month after a Turkish court freed a US pastor from two years of detention.

US President Donald Trump spoke on Thursday with Erdogan, with the Turkish leader’s office saying both sides had stressed their determination to strengthen ties.

The White House said the two men “discussed a desire to work together particularly on their coordination in Syria.”

Erdogan also “expressed his condolences for the tragic loss of life at the synagogue in Pittsburgh,” Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, referring to the shootings last Saturday of 11 people inside a Jewish temple.

Image: Al Jazeera

Article: Middle East Eye